The Shortest War in History: Anglo-Zanzibar war of 1896

This is certainly one of my favorite exotic British colonial conflicts, the war itself, lasting around 38 minutes, is considered the shortest in recorded history.


The island of Zanzibar, like the nearby coastal areas of East Africa, was first settled by Persians and Arabs who intermingled with the native population. It was fertile and well-cultivated land, producing cloves and other tropical spices, using slave labour. It quickly became a hub of the flourishing eastwards slave trade. Through this network of trade routes and local pacts the Sultanate of Zanzibar wielded massive influence across large parts of the African continent -areas that became increasingly coveted by the European powers.
Britain's interests were largely due to Zanzibar's position on the world trade routes. It was roughly equidistant, around 2,400 miles from the Cape and Bombay (and later the Suez Canal) and was key to the 'ocean front door' of East Central Africa. Together with Mombasa and the proposed Uganda Railway, it allowed access to the vast, rich interior of the Dark Continent.
Zanzibar town contained many British and European residents, as well as Arab and Indian Quarters, a variety of mosques and  an English Universities Mission Cathedral. There were several fine buildings, towers and libraries and a busy waterfront.
In 1858 Seiyd Madjid, Sultan of Zanzibar, declared himself independent of Oman, with the agreement of Britain. In 1873 and 1875 his successor, his brother Barghash, signed treaties with Britain declaring illegal the sea traffic in slaves. In 1886 the Sultan's sovereignty over Zanzibar island, Pemba and a substantial strip of the mainland coastline was recognised by Britain, France and Germany. In return Barghash's successor Khalifa granted to the German East African Company a lease, later bought by the German Government, of the coastline of what later became Tanganyika. A similar lease granted to Britain covered land to the north of the German concession. The transfers antagonised some sections of the local population, especially those rich Arab traders whose family fortunes were built on slaves.
In 1888, the Sultan granted the British East Africa Company exclusive trade rights over a territory of 50,000 square miles. The territory comprised a strip of mainland coastline 10 miles broad and 150 miles long, including the valuable harbour of Mombasa. The Company was required by its charter to 'discourage and, so far as may be practicable with existing treatise, to abolish any system of slave trade or domestic servitudes within its territories'.
The British and German governments, with the concurrence of the ailing Sultan Khalifa, agreed to a joint naval blockade against the slave ships and others carrying war contraband. Over 1,400 runaway slaves were discovered in hiding at three English mission stations near Mombasa and set free.

Khalifa died suddenly in 1890 and his brother Seyyid Ali was elected unanimously by the leading Arabs to succeed him. The new Sultan ordered the release of untried prisoners and suppressed insurgents with the help of British officers. In June he declared Zanzibar a British Protectorate and abolished all slave trading within his dominions, although that did not prohibit slave ownership. The following year a regular government was formed in which a British representative would serve as first minister. Britain's grip on Zanzibar continued after the death of Seyyid Ali in 1893 and the succession of Hamid-bin-Thwain.

The War

The flagship St George in the bay
On the 25 August 1896 Hamid died suddenly and in very suspicious circumstances. He was almost certainly poisoned. His cousin Sayid Khalid, a 'rash and wilful' young man of twenty five, was ready to act swiftly. It can never be proved conclusively that Khalid murdered his kinsmen, but he very quickly took command of 1,200 of the late Sultans troops and seized the Palace with the obvious intention of proclaiming himself the new sultan.
General Mathews and Basil Cave, the British diplomatic agent to Zanzibar, had arrived at the place within ten minutes of the old Sultans death and they were greeted by Khalid and his retainers a few minutes later. The British were brushed aside in their attempts to persuade Khalid to think carefully about his actions, and the two men retired to the new Customs House as Khalid's supporters, all heavily armed and well prepared, streamed into the Palace Square. Shortly after noon there were 900 men, under the command of the former Sultan's Captain Saleh, lined up in the Square behind field guns that had been presented to Zanzibar by the German Emperor. Within a few hours their numbers had swelled to 2,500, with several Maxim guns sighted steadily on the English Club. Their artillery also consisted of a large Gatling gun and a seventeenth century bronze cannon.
Mathews and Cave were joined by Zanzibar askaris, troops loyal to the government, and 150 naval men from the British warship's Philomel and Thrush, providentially anchored in the harbour. Another British ship, Sparrow, entered the harbour and was ordered to anchor alongside Thrush at moorings apposite the palace, their guns aimed at its frontage.

During this time many messages were sent from Cave to Khalid warning him against any defiance of the 'protecting power' and ordering him to leave the palace, disperse his troops and return to his own house. Khalid replied by giving notice that at precisely 3pm he would proclaim himself Sultan. He was told in turn that such  a move would be regarded as an open act of rebellion.
At 2.30 the Arabs buried the old Sultan and thirty minutes later Khalid, true to his threat, proclaimed himself the new Sultan and ordered  a royal salute from his guns. Cave informed all the other foreign consuls that there was no new sultan and all flags remained at half mast, save for a large red flag flying from the Palace Square. The news was also telegraphed to London, nothing further could be done until the answer was received. At 2pm the following day the British flotilla in the harbour was reinforced by the flagship  St George under the command of Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson, commander-in-chief of the Cape and East Africa station.

As Rawson was rowed to shore the eagerly awaited reply from London arrived. Broadly, it gave the British authorities on the spot permission to act as they saw fit. Further brief negotiations were held through emissaries but Khalid still refused to leave the palace. Rawson sent an ultimatum -haul down the royal flag and leave the palace by nine the following morning, or be blasted out.
During the afternoon all merchant vessels steamed around to the south harbour so that the British frigates would have a clear line of fire.
At 8.00 on the morning of the 27th was no sign of capitulation from the palace and the signal was hoisted from the flagship to prepare for action. At 8.30 Khalid sent an envoy to Cave to ask what the British intended to do, and the ultimatum was sternly repeated.
Two minutes after the hour Racoon, Thrush and Sparrow opened fire simultaneously. Thrush dismounted one of the Arabs' 12-pounders at the first shot. The palace was raked with shellfire, buildings were pounded into the ground, and people were buried under the rubble. The palace, together with its adjoining harem, were just yards from the waterfront. It was no great stone citadel, but a flimsy wooden structure made up of spindly balconied and veranda's. The impact of high explosive and shell splinters on up to 3,000 defendants and servants packed inside the palace's narrow alleys and the courtyards, and behind hastily erected barricades of baled goods, crates and bags of rubber, is all too easy to imagine.
The bombardment ceased at about 9.40 am when the older portion of the palace caught fire, the enemy artillery was silenced and the usurper's flag had been cut down by a stray shot. One British seaman, a petty officer aboard Thrush, was severely wounded in the hopelessly unequal artillery duel but later recovered. The casualties on the opposing side topped 500, of whom most died in the scorched wreckage of the old palace, which was totally gutted.

The Aftermath

The Sultan's Harem after the bombardment
Khalid and his leading followers took refuge in the German consulate. The German consul refused to hand him over because an extradition treaty with Britain stipulated that a fugitive should not be given up for political offence. On 2 October Khalid was smuggled aboard a warship and granted asylum in German East Africa. He was finally apprehended by British forces in 1917 and suffered exile in the Seychelles and on St Helena for his challenge to the might of the British Empire. After several years he was permitted to return to Africa, but never posed a threat again.
The badly damaged palace complex was completely changed by the war. The harem, lighthouse and palace were demolished as the bombardment had left them unsafe. The palace site became an area of gardens whilst a new palace was erected on the site of the harem.
The British could have abolished the Sultanate and created a Crown Colony but did  not want the expense of running a direct administration. They chose instead to keep the Sultan as a figurehead while tightening their control on all military, financial and executive affairs.
Perhaps due to the effectiveness shown by the Royal Navy during the bombardment, there were no further rebellions against British influence during the remaining 67 years of the protectorate.

The bay and original palace site today